The 13th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” begins with a bit of lucky news for the reality show’s latest group of fighters. Relief washes over the faces of the cast of 14 welterweights as UFC President Dana White informs them that they will not have to fight their way into the house.
White is kind enough to forgo any immediate “F-bombs” and limits himself to simply introducing the new coaches: Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos. Once the fighters get past the awe of seeing the Minnesota Norse king and his coaching rival, it’s straight down to brass tacks.
White gives them the quick rundown on where they are, who they are and what is to be expected. He then announces that there will be a quick and immediate training session for the coaches to evaluate their potential charges.
The slimmed-down Lesnar cuts a curious figure has he traverses the training facility, eying the fighters as if they are show-horses while clutching a clipboard.
“See if you guys are worth a s--t,” explains Lesnar as he runs them through cardio tests with his conditioning coach.
Meanwhile, Dos Santos introduces himself clumsily, but no one seems to care. It’s certainly not that the Brazilian heavyweight’s English is terrible, because it isn’t. Dos Santos is simply hesitant and self-conscious speaking in his new tongue, and he comes off as shy -- an interesting contrast to Lesnar, who is not exactly a shrinking violet.
“We can speak the fight language,” Dos Santos says, assuring the fighters he’ll be heard clearly in the end.
Along with “Cigano” is his assistant coach, Lew Polley. The two have their boys shadow-boxing and wrestling for their own evaluations. Dos Santos also wields a clipboard, a sight which can lessen a UFC heavyweight’s tough guy image instantly, like Steven Tyler putting on his “American Idol” judging glasses and instantly turning from rock god to grandma. Perhaps a whistle would be better.
“How many guys here are wrestlers, I wonder?” Brock asks aloud in his thick Minnesota accent before setting out to extract more personal information from the fighters. “Why are you here?” he asks as Dos Santos watches on, lamenting his own language barrier and lack of instant rapport.
White calls Lesnar and Dos Santos in for some team talk and, unlike Josh Koscheck and Georges St. Pierre in the previous season, there are no contentious arguments between these coaches. The heavyweights are so calm, it’s not immediately clear that Lesnar and Dos Santos know who one another are.
The mood is laid-back as White explains the rules and makes his coin flip. Lesnar wins the toss and chooses to select the first fighter, giving Dos Santos the first choice of matchup.
Lesnar was confident that things would work out regardless of the coin toss, proclaiming, “Even if we don’t get the best guys, we’ll have to make chicken salad out of chicken s--t.”
Charlie Rader is Lesnar’s second pick (Len Bentley was the former champion's No. 1 choice) and the New Orleans native is happy with his new coach, as he explains, “You don’t take a guy with under five fights and make him a champion. If [the UFC] can do that with Brock, I can’t wait to see what they do with me.”
Most guys seem happy with their assigned teams. Chris Cope chuckles, saying, “I love Brock. I hope he loves me.” The statement earns a retort of “good luck with that” from White.
“I got the biggest alpha male in the world. Forget about Chuck Norris -- it’s all about Brock Lesnar, right?” laughs Cope.
Away to the “TUF” house they go, where Team Brock claims the upstairs, while Team Dos Santos takes the downstairs bedroom. Yes, bedroom -- one room for each team.
Of course, every season it seems inevitable that someone will be injured before they have a chance to show their wares. This time it’s undefeated prospect Myles Jury, whose knee is twisted during evaluations. Jury gets an MRI on his knee and the doctor tells him he has two torn ligaments.
As the doc lists off the maladies, coach Lesnar shifts his position to get a better read on Jury’s face as he soaks in the bad news. Brock offers encouraging words, but shortly thereafter, White informs Jury that he and his knee will have to be sent home. In his place enters a fighter by the name of Chuck O’Neil, who is welcomed to Team Lesnar with big, open arms.
It comes time to announce the first fight and Dos Santos decides to pair his own top pick, Shamar Bailey, against Team Lesnar’s last choice, Nordin Asrih. White puts it in perspective by saying, “You can’t really tell how good a guy is with a two-hour evaluation.”
Asrih gets right to work with MMA vet Erik Paulson and we find out the fighter has a lot going on. He’s a devout Muslim and a German-born citizen who considers himself fully German. He has a little more experience than Shamar and his teammates feel that Asrih’s jet lag affected his evaluation.
Bailey talks about building relationships that extend past the filming of the show, which is probably one of the more heady things ever said on the first day of “TUF.”
As nobody in the house is bickering yet, we move straight into the Octagon for the first fight of the season. Bailey has it on the floor in seconds, but that’s the most urgency he shows, as he seems content to lay atop Asrih for the rest of the round. In no hurry to give up position, Bailey methodically picks apart his opponent from on top. Asrih, for his part, does not do much in the way of attempting to reverse or escape. He also does not get overwhelmed and, save for a few late elbows from Bailey, does not come close to being finished.
In round two, Asrih falls almost immediately from a poorly timed kick and Bailey returns to his post as mayor of Mount City. Asrih has more ideas this time around, reversing position and even getting on top of Bailey for a moment. Bailey soon reverses this, however, and continues his light ground-and-pound attack. In the last few minutes, Bailey begins opening up, working knees to the body and putting more pep behind his punches. Even as Bailey ups his energy and Team Dos Santos pours on support from the sidelines, Asrih is able to survive the round.
Bailey easily wins the unanimous decision and gives Team Dos Santos a fairly boring, but extremely important, first win. Lesnar takes the loss in stride, explaining, “they put their best guy against our last pick, so it’s to be expected.”
Afterward, in the locker room, Lesnar complains about Dos Santos’ team celebrating a bit too loudly for his taste in the next room over. It should be interesting to see how long Lesnar can remain this reserved if his team continues to lose.